Covid-19 vaccines: Behind the scenes of Ireland’s huge distribution effort

Staff work around the clock to get vaccines to every corner of the State

This time last year we pored over every detail about the new Covid-19 vaccines, including the arrival of special freezers to store at minus 70 degrees the vials of Pfizer BioNTech vaccine that inoculators were tasked with wasting not a drop of. We kept abreast of the amounts of that and the other coronavirus vaccines, from Moderna, Oxford AstraZeneca and Jansen, that arrived in Ireland each month and who would get them first.

We took to the airwaves to complain that teachers and other public-facing workers had to wait too long to be jabbed as the inoculations were rolled out on by age group once nursing-home residents and healthcare workers were vaccinated. Then there was uproar if anyone was seen to jump the queue.

But did we ever think about the people whose job it was to transport these vaccines first from ports and airports to a warehouse and then out again for distribution to nursing homes, GPs’ surgeries, vaccination centres and pharmacies around Ireland?

For Pfizer we had to find glue that would stick to boxes at minus 70 degrees. We had to create labels with barcodes which incorporated traceability, number of vials, batch numbers and use-before dates

The Health Service Executive appointed United Drug, Ireland's largest pharmaceutical-distribution company, to get its vaccines to every corner of the country. That meant Catherine Cummins, the firm's operations quality director, was responsible for overseeing the whole distribution process, from the moment the vaccines landed in Ireland until they went into the arms of people from Dingle to Donegal.


“The intensity of the job was massive. I was online seven days a week even when I wasn’t in here,” says Cummins, speaking at United Drug’s distribution hub at Citywest business park, in Dublin. “Vaccinators had to travel a lot, and hospital pharmacies [and other local storage units] had to open at weekends to receive vaccines for use the next day.”

Cummins says that although United Drug distributes half of all medicines to Irish hospitals and pharmacies, new infrastructure and checks had to be created for the Covid-19 vaccines. “For Pfizer we had to find glue that would stick to boxes at minus 70 degrees. We had to create labels with barcodes which incorporated traceability, number of vials, batch numbers and use-before dates,” she explains.

Workers have to wear special jackets, trousers and balaclavas, as well as safety gloves and safety footwear, in order to go into freezers storing Moderna at minus 20 degrees. The fridges for the Pfizer jabs have alarms that will go off if the temperature varies more than 10 degrees either side of minus 70. Workers have three minutes to scan, label and transfer batches of vaccines from the delivery vehicles, with a 20-second window to open and close the freezers.

Early on in the vaccination rollout, the Garda oversaw deliveries to United Drug’s distribution hub; Garda headquarters was also notified of the routes the delivery vans took as they travelled to nursing homes throughout Ireland.

Cummins was initially in touch with the Covid-19 taskforce each day as she managed a seven-day operation until the end of May. When the storage life of the Pfizer vaccine was extended from five days to 30, in May this year, it was a game-changer for cold-chain delivery schedules.

“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. Some of my family called me Helen of Troy – they don’t understand how I’m still standing – but I enjoy the challenge,” she says.

Number of vaccines distributed in the State
Pfizer BioNTech 5.47 million
Modern 570,000
AstraZeneca 1.19 million
Jansen 236,000

When I tour the vast warehouse in Citywest, workers talk about what it has been like to be part of the largest vaccine-distribution process in the country’s hostory.

"We never handled products that needed to be stored at minus 70 degrees before," says David Brunt, warehouse manager. "The country was relying on us to bring the vaccines to people. My wife and children are proud to say that I'm helping with the Covid vaccine rollout."

Stephen Noone is responsible for checking the right vans have the right vaccines before they set off. "I was a driver before I moved inside, and when we delivered the first vaccines we got big applause from everyone," he says.

Josip Jozic works in the cold-storage area, where the temperature is kept between 2 and 8 degrees. Vaccines are thawed, repackaged and relabelled here on the order-processing day. "Honestly, I love the work.

Everyone I ask says they have been jabbed, and the company runs a Covid-19 and flu vaccination clinic on site. “All our staff has the opportunity to be vaccinated, but legally we can’t insist on that. We send out communications every week about wearing masks, physical distancing and vaccines, but there are people who haven’t had the vaccine,” says Cummins.

While acknowledging that vaccine inequity is an issue, she points out that the Government donated three pallets, or 335,000 doses, of AstraZeneca vaccine to Uganda in September this year, as well as Covid-specific medications to Brazil in June. "The Government, the HSE and University College Cork are running clinical trials on Covid treatments, and we have offered to manage the supply chain for these clinical trials for free," says Cummins.

When I visit Citywest, the staff are preparing for the delivery of Pfizer Covid vaccines for children. Covid booster shots are also still being widely distributed. Cummins says, “2022 will still be a challenge, as there will be upgraded versions of vaccines for the Omicron variant. There will also be other products, like anti-viral medications, coming, to distribute to hospitals, and there will be more and more cold-chain products as targeted and biologic medicines continue to be used more.” She is undaunted by task ahead given the response so far of these backroom workers many of us never think about.